3 Paths the Trump Administration Can Take

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Trump crazy and defiant, Trump cool and shrewd, Trump creating his own reality — all of these roles are possible for him.Photo-Illustration: Getty Images

As the country gets used to the outlandish idea of President Donald Trump, and journalists begin speculating about his cabinet picks, there are some bigger, more central decisions the new regime needs to make about its direction and goals. It says a lot about the Trump (as he calls it) Movement’s inchoate and sometimes psychedelic shape that there are three very different paths it could take from the get-go.

Possibility No. 1: Trump acts like he did during most of the campaign — constantly creating chaos and pursuing vendettas that distract him from his main work.
This is the version of the Trump administration that has inspired the most fear, not just among progressives but in respectable circles across the ideological and partisan spectrum. It’s that of Trump the pure “disruptive” force, coming to Washington to “drain the swamp” and essentially continue the campaign’s guerrilla theater stylings. As a practical matter, it would be the opposite of consistency and predictability: One day Trump could be attacking the routed forces of the Democratic Party by demanding the repeal of all of Obama’s policies. The next day he could be attacking the Wall Street benefactors of his fellow Republicans, and expanding intra-party policy fights by insisting on an immediate sea change in trade or immigration policy. There would never be a dull moment, but also no clear blueprint for governing, either.

All those who figure Trump has no real set of core principles other than self-promotion, and who do not think he has any real interest in governing, would probably bet on this Visigothic model for the new administration. Perhaps the clearest sign Trump is pursuing it would be a vengeful attitude toward people like Paul Ryan, who will be central to his ability to accomplish anything legislatively, and choices for early appointments that violently offend Establishment sensibilities. Secretary of Energy Sarah Palin would be a very clear signal that Trump is more interested in continuing to defy elites than in running the country. And by the same token, an unhealthy interest in promoting criminal investigations of Hillary Clinton would show the campaign is still roaring along even though its prime objective had been achieved.

If the new administration does get off to a destructive start, with the president of the United States continuing his late-night tweets, lashing around angrily at critics, and abandoning the graceful tone of his Election Night victory speech, the big question will become, Who is running the country?

In theory, any group of people with influence over the White House could quietly shape policy even as The Boss is mugging for the cameras and terrifying foreign governments and undocumented immigrants. But whether these implicit rulers are alt-right bravos or conventional conservative ideologues matters a great deal. It is anybody’s guess at this juncture whether the dominant force in a Trump White House a year from now is going to be a populist bomb-thrower like Stephen Bannon, a steady Republican hand like Reince Priebus, or an superannuated demagogue like Rudy Giuliani or Newt Gingrich.

Possibility No. 2: Trump will help the GOP Congress execute a brisk and rather traditional conservative policy revolution.
In this scenario, Trump will quickly come together with congressional Republicans to enact all of the right-wing policies on which they agree, with or without cutting a deal on the issues where they differ. This is the path I made a habit of warning about before the election and on Election Night: It requires a Republican Congress, which the election returns confirmed, and the willingness to use procedural mechanisms — most notably a big, nasty, fast-tracked, un-filibuster-able budget reconciliation bill — to achieve long-desired conservative policy goals and the elimination of the Obama administration’s legacy as quickly as possible. House Speaker Paul Ryan has already pointed in that direction (a similar blitzkrieg plan was in place four years ago had Romney won and Republicans kept control of the Senate), and for all the talk of “civil war” in the GOP, most of the big-ticket items in a big budget bill (a huge upper-income and corporate tax cut; a boost in Pentagon spending; the crippling of Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, and other targets dependent on federal funding; and a comprehensive attack on low-income programs including Medicaid) involve things Trump has endorsed or is unlikely to care about at all.

The big budget bill could also include some token Trump items like infrastructure spending (though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is already reportedly making some discouraging noises about that!) and shots at token federal tax and budget subsidies that can be said to represent “crony capitalism” (which most conservative ideologues oppose anyway). It all depends on whether the world’s greatest negotiator pays much attention to the details. But a conservative policy revolution could also be pursued by Trump alone: He is certain to reverse Obama’s immigration-enforcement and climate-change orders and regulations; the question is how far he goes in other areas — like financial regulation, labor policy, and land-use policy — to do what conservatives have long wanted.

We should know pretty soon whether Trump is interested in giving conservatives their heart’s great desire, as perfectly expressed by Über-lobbyist Grover Norquist way back in 2012:

We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate. […]

Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills. His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.”

Short-fingered or not, Trump has enough working digits to let Ryan and McConnell do the heavy lifting and sign a bill reversing the Obama legacy and Democratic accomplishments dating back to the Great Society before the opposition knows what’s hit them.

Possibility No. 3: Trump remakes GOP in his image and aggressively pushes for populist policies.
A third option might appear if Trump and his people take their own rhetoric seriously about representing a movement that is aimed at outflanking both parties’ elites and giving “the silent majority” the kind of government it allegedly craves. That would require making Trumpism a distinct “populist” agenda instead of a series of atavistic impulses with certain policy implications. And it also means continuing to impose Trump’s will on the Republican Party and not just rubber-stamping a conservative agenda created by Congress.

More immediately, the “movement” option would suggest driving a very hard bargain with congressional Republicans, and perhaps even a refusal to rush something like the Ryan budget into law. After all, conventional conservative policies are unpopular; that’s why you only hear of them being enacted with breakneck speed by processes that violate normal policy-making. If Trump wants to succeed substantively and maybe even get reelected, his instincts will lead him away from too cozy a relationship with the very GOP he just conquered. He could instead offer his most active supporters a mix of governing policies that reflects what they really seem to want: efforts to get the economy roaring; an attack on big money in politics; a commitment to rebuilding the manufacturing sector; and of course the repudiation of past Republican trade and immigration policies. These are all things the GOP Establishment has long opposed, but whether they fight Trump or roll over, he’ll hold the whip hand if he chooses to wield it.

The big question about this “movement” option is where exactly Trump will get the specific policy ideas to chart an independent course. His closest friend in Washington, Jeff Sessions, is the most conventional of conservatives once you get past trade and immigration policy. The so-called “reformocons,” conservative policy innovators who typically shared some of the Trump critique of GOP elitism, don’t exactly have instant access to Trump circles; most of them publicly refused to even vote for him. And while the alt-right folks actually may have access to the levers of power, it is not like they have any expertise at or any interest in health-care policy or putting together a budget. Indeed, they would probably like the Ryan budget just fine.

In any event, Trump and his inner circle need to choose a path and begin taking steps in the desired direction right now, when the media are cowed, the opposition is confused, and the manipulative GOP elites have not had time to wire everything. Trump’s biggest problem may be the perception that, having defied all logic in becoming a major-party presidential nominee and then the leader of the free world, he does’t need logic at all. He will soon discover that governing is not just another reality show filmed in the Oval Office.